Pencils Down, Your Time Is Up: 5 (+1) Strategies to Overcome Test Anxiety (A Reader Request)

For the first time in almost 10 years writing this blog, I’ve had a reader request that I address a particular topic! So, of course, I am very happy to oblige, especially since this particular topic is one that is very important to me as both an educator and a student–TEST ANXIETY!!

I suppose that I’ve been fortunate in this particular area. With all of my anxieties, and there are many, test anxiety is not something from which I’ve ever suffered. I’ve always performed well on tests and taking them never produced much stress for me.

However, that is certainly not true for many friends, family members, and my students. I personally know a large number of people who suffer from test anxiety–some of them experience severe, adverse effects.

What is test anxiety exactly?

In his book, Test Anxiety: The State of the Art (1993), Moshe Zeidner defines test anxiety as, “a combination of physiological over-arousal, tension and somatic symptoms, along with worry, dread, fear of failure, and catastrophizing, that occur before or during test situations.”

That’s a whole lot of what my grandmother used to call $5 words that basically means when you go in to take a test, you’re so worried about failing or not doing well that your sympathetic nervous system (that part of the nervous system that controls our “fight or flight” response) kicks into overdrive causing both psychological and physical symptoms in the body.

It’s important to note that these symptoms don’t only occur during tests. Often times, people experience anticipatory anxiety (symptoms of anxiety prior to the event) which can cause problems for days or even weeks ahead of time.

What causes test anxiety?

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), some of the causes of test anxiety include: fear of failurelack of preparation, and poor test history.

Fear of Failure
Often times, students who have high expectations for themselves, or whose parents, guardians, family, colleagues, etc. have high expectations for them, have an intense fear of failure. This fear is directly linked to those expectations. Although the expectations are a constant in that student’s life, fear associated with the thought of failure intensifies during tests.

Lack of Preparation
Some students are anxious about tests simply because they did not adequately prepare for them, or because their preparation was hurried or “crammed” into a very short period of time close to the date of the test. As the student becomes aware of their lack of preparation, anxiety sets in about the outcome of the test.

Poor Test History
Of all the causes of test anxiety, poor testing history has been the most common among my students and people I know. Without getting into the quagmire of opining on our education system’s obsession with standardized tests, suffice it to say that students now days are tested far more than when I was in school. And, the truth of the matter is now, just as it was back then, that there are some students who just don’t test well. After multiple experiences with failure on tests, many of these students develop a mental “block” about testing, which leads to anxiety, which leads to poor performance…and the vicious cycle is born.

What are the symptoms of test anxiety?

According to the ADAA, symptoms of test anxiety may include (but are not limited to):

  • Physical Symptoms–“Headache, nausea, diarrhea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, light-headedness and feeling faint can all occur. Test anxiety can lead to a panic attack, which is the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort in which individuals may feel like they are unable to breathe or having a heart attack.”
  • Emotional Symptoms–“Feelings of anger, fear, helplessness and disappointment are common emotional responses to test anxiety.”
  • Behavioral/Cognitive Symptoms–“Difficulty concentrating, thinking negatively and comparing yourself to others are common symptoms of test anxiety.”

These symptoms are, of course, not all present in every student; and some students may experience symptoms which are entirely different.

To read the ADAA’s entire page on Test Anxiety, click here.

5 Strategies for Avoiding Test Anxiety

  1. Be prepared. The biggest mistake I see my students make when it comes to taking tests is that they don’t adequately prepare. When they do assignments leading up to the test, they simply complete the assignment and then move on. They don’t study what they learned from the assignment while they’re doing it, or when it is returned to them after being graded. Students often wait until a day or two ahead of time, or even the night before a test and “cram” for it. According to researchers at UCLA, cramming for tests, and the “trade off” with lack of sleep, is one of the least effective ways to study for tests. They say that the best method for test preparation is “maintain[ing] a regular study schedule” (UCLA Newsroom, 2012).
  2. Use good test taking strategies. This really isn’t rocket science. In fact, you’ve likely heard this since your very first days in school. When taking a test, you should do all of the following:
    • Read the directions. Too many students don’t bother to read the directions and miss questions because they didn’t.
    • If you don’t know it, skip it and come back. As a general rule, I allow myself about one minute to read and think about a test question (depending on the number of questions and how much time I have to take the test). If I’m not sure of the answer by then, I flag it–mark it to come back to later–and move on. Then, if time allows, I return to the question and give myself a little more time. If I still don’t know it…..I MAKE AN EDUCATED GUESS! Never leave a question blank. If you do, you have a 100% chance of missing it.
    • Keep your focus on the test. It’s important that, while you’re working on the test, you stay focused on the test…on your test. Don’t get hung up on what other students are doing or on which students have already finished. Your job is your test. Just focus.
  3. Keep yourself healthy. I wrote in one of my other posts how important it is to be physically healthy in order to maintain good mental health. Fighting test anxiety is no different. Before your test be sure that you’ve a) had enough sleep the night before–don’t stay up cramming, and b) you have a good, nutritious meal. Yes, your grandmother was right! Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Be sure that you eat it, even if you think you’re too nervous to eat! That goes for other meals during the day if your test isn’t in the morning.
  4. RELAX!! Part of the reason that many of my students who consistently performed poorly on tests did so is because they couldn’t relax. They got themselves so worked up over the test that they almost certainly doomed themselves. It is important to be as relaxed as possible. Some nerves are ok…they mean that you care. But, getting so nervous that you lose focus is not good at all. Before the test, if possible, find a quiet place. Close your eyes. Try not to think about the test. Take some long, deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth, allowing at least 2 seconds for each. If you don’t have a quiet place to do that before the test, just sit at your desk, be quiet in yourself, close your eyes, and breathe. Then, while you’re taking the test….keep breathing!
  5. Stay positive. There really is no substitute fora positive attitude. If you walk into a test believing you’re going to fail, you probably will. But, if you walk in telling yourself that you know the material, you’re prepared, you’re going to focus and try your hardest, then you dramatically increase your chances at success.

And now, your +1

Examine  and evaluate expectations. One of the traps that people with anxiety disorders often fall into is the trap of unrealistic expectations. From time to time, we must take time out to examine and evaluate not only our expectations of ourselves, but also the expectations that other people have for us.

When examining and evaluating expectations ask yourself 2 questions:

  1. Is this an expectation I have of myself, or is this someone else’s expectation of/for me?
  2. Is this expectation realistic or achievable?

It’s OK to say “No.” No is a sentence all by itself. If the expectations that you are laboring under are either a) someone else’s for you, b) unrealistic/unachievable, or c) both, them dump them! Just say no! Reevaluate and regroup. It’s OK to change your expectations and to change your mind!

Don’t Ignore Warning Signs

Changing your mindset, your habits, and your focus can and will help curb test anxiety. However, if your anxiety has reached the point where it is impacting your ability to function and succeed in your education or job, it is very important that you seek help.

As with any other type of anxiety, there are professionals available who can help you overcome this severe anxiety. Don’t ignore warning signs! They are the same as with other forms of anxiety: chronic sadness, thoughts of suicide, feeling hopeless about your life, separating yourself from the outside world, diminishing physical health. These are all signs that your anxiety has reached a level where professional help is necessary. Seek it out. There is hope!

I hope that something I’ve written here will help you overcome anxieties about taking tests. I know this is a big problem for many students, but I also know that it can be overcome.

If you have any thoughts, suggestions, or encouraging words, please leave them below in the comments section.

Until next time…

Love and light,
Jason


I hope these posts are helpful to you, whomever you may be. If you’re struggling with anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, there is hope to be found. You can call the Panic Disorder Information Hotline at 800-64-PANIC (72642). (The page links to more information about anxiety and panic disorders.)

As always, if you or someone you know is suffering from any sort of mental illness or disorder, please reach out for help because there is help to be found!

Please share this post! Even if you don’t suffer, or don’t think you know anyone who does, you might just reach someone you didn’t even know and offer them HOPE! Thank you!!

 

 

5 (+1) Tips To Reduce Anxiety on the First Day of School (with COVID-era upate)

It’s that time again…

Back to School!

The first day of school is just around the corner (already here in some places), and for students, parents, and teachers alike, knowing that first day of school is coming can produce a lot anxiety and sometimes enough stress to make you sick!

But it doesn’t have to be that way…

jason walker wearing shirt and tie standing in front of projector screen

Mr. Walker on his very first first day of school as a teacher!

When I was still in the classroom teaching, I dreaded the first day of school. I never felt prepared and I always felt like I was going to crash and burn as soon as the first bell rang!

No matter what I did, the first day of school always seemed to be the most daunting day of the entire school year.

I remember my first day teaching in my first year teaching. I didn’t sleep at all the night before, and when I finally got out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to get ready to go, I thought the world was going to end. I had major anxiety: dizziness, upset stomach, cold sweats, headache, racing heart, shortness of breath…

You name the symptom and I had it!!

But, somehow I got through that first day, and the other 175 days that came after it. Somehow, I always got through the first day of school every year, and I was always glad I did.

And, believe me when I tell you that if I did it, YOU CAN, TOO!

Here are 5 Tips to Reduce Anxiety on the 1st Day of School:

1. Don’t stress about being prepared — you won’t be!

It didn’t matter how much time I spent on lesson plans, setting up my classroom, gathering materials, cleaning, making copies….I never had everything done on the morning of the first day of school. And, guess what? You won’t either!

But, the great part about that is that, it’s OK! Your students will probably be too worn out from summer and overwhelmed themselves to notice. Not being 100% prepared on the first day will not permanently damage any of your students. So, give yourself a break. You will get it done…another day!

2. Make sure that you are well-rested.

Notice I didn’t say, “get plenty of sleep the night before”…right?

If you’re anything like me, you just can’t sleep when you’re nervous. And, if you’re like me, you’re going to be nervous the night before the first day of school. If you don’t sleep 8 hours, DON’T PANIC! There are ways to mitigate the damage.

Take a good nap during the afternoon before. Hey, who doesn’t love a nap? At least your body will get some rest that day.

Don’t do anything major on the day before the first day of school. I once had a colleague who ran a charity 5K every year right before school started. Several of them happened on the day before. I really don’t recommend this.

Use the day before the first day to let your body rest. Don’t do anything stressful–especially anything like preparing for the next day. Take it easy. Watch a good movie. Have a good meal. Spend time with your family.

RELAX!

3. Give yourself plenty of time.

One of the biggest mistakes that a lot of people make, not just teachers, is not giving themselves enough time in the morning. Being in a rush, even if you’re not running late, creates more even more anxiety.

If it normally takes you an hour to get ready in the mornings, give yourself an hour and a half on the first day.

If your commute is 30 minutes, give yourself 45.

If you know there will be a line at the copy machine–do your copying several days ahead, or better yet, do an activity on the first day that doesn’t require making a bunch of copies.

Whatever you need to do, be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to get there and get down to work. No one ever made a difference by being in a rush!

4. Eat something–ANYTHING, even if you don’t feel like it.

You remember what grandma used to say: “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”

Well, guess what? She was right!

There have been numerous studies that have shown students who don’t eat a good breakfast in the morning before school don’t perform as well. The same thing is true for teachers.

If you go to school hungry, even if you don’t realize you’re hungry because your nerves are on edge, you simply won’t perform well. You know what I’m talking about. You’ll end up with a headache, upset stomach, lethargy, and you’ll be a bear to your students in the class period before lunch!

Even if you don’t feel like it, be sure to eat something. Some crackers and cheese, or peanut butter; a piece of toast and cheese…eat something with some protein and carbs so that you’re full and have plenty of energy.

5. Remember, there is only ONE first day of school!

This is maybe my favorite one of all!

Whatever happens; however terrible (or terrific) the first day of school is, remember: there is, and will ever be, ONLY ONE first day of school. You will get through it. The last bell will ring. The students will go home, and you will, too.

Yes, the first day is stressful. Yes, you will be nervous and anxious and excited and worried and thrilled and all of the other emotions at the same time. And, yes, at the end of it you will be exhausted…but, it will be over, and it will be the only one of the year.

Remember that while you read the note little Johnny’s mom wrote to you complaining that she has to spend her money on “school supplies for other kids.” She’ll only write it once!

And, just for you, my readers….

BONUS TIP…..BREATHE!!!

That’s right. Whatever you do, don’t forget to breath.

In through the nose for four seconds. Hold two seconds. Out through the mouth four seconds.

Purposely slowing your breathing accomplishes three things:
1. It lowers the heart rate.
2. It lowers the blood pressure.
3. It ensures that your brain and body are getting enough oxygen.

All of those things reduce anxiety.

2020 Update: The First Day in the COVID-19 Era

If you had told me last year at this time that in one year’s time I’d not only be teaching fully online, but also taking classes fully online; and if you would have told me that almost six months would have passed since I would’ve eaten inside a restaurant; and if you would have told me that millions of people around the world would be dead from a virus that, until February, I (like most other Americans) had never hear of — I would have probably laughed in your face and told you that you were crazy.

But, I am, it has been, there are, and that’s the way we begin school in the COVID-19 era…

I wish I had a magic wand to fix this. Or, at the very least, I wish I had a crystal ball to tell you when it would all end. But, I don’t have either of those things. In fact, since transparency is the name of the game here on the Anxiety Diaries, I’m going to be complete transparent and tell you that I’m not handling this well at all. I’ve taken some major steps back in my battle with depression and anxiety. Thankfully, I’m attending school and teaching at a university that has seen fit to allow students and professors to decide what works best for them and I can do everything online for now. But, if that weren’t the case, I don’t know if I’d still be teaching or going to school at all.

For millions of teachers and students around the country, the first day of school is just around the corner, or has already started, and they’re back, in the buildings, in some Twilight Zone existence featuring masks, keeping six feet apart, not touching, constantly washing or sanatizing hands, and in some cases separated by plexiglass bariers attached to their desks. Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t have written it better for a movie. If that’s you, and if you’re anxious and nervous and not sure about any of it, here’s what I suggest:

  1. Educate yourself. Make sure that you are up to date on the latest information about and recommendations for staying healthy in the midst of a pandemic.
  2. Enforce boundaries. You know what you’re comfortable with. Don’t let people guilt you into doing something you don’t feel safe doing: if you don’t want to hug, don’t; if you don’t want to shake hands, don’t; if you don’t want to eat lunch at a full table, don’t. Do what you need to do to be calm.
  3. Take time for yourself. Don’t allow yourself to get inundated like you normally do during the school year. Leave some free time in your schedule to decompress–you’ll need it.
  4. BREATHE! This is always most important. Don’t forget to breathe!!!

As cliched and trite as it sounds right now, we will get through this. It’s going to take time, but we will. And, I firmly believe that when we do we will be better for it.

So, those are my tips for getting through the anxiety and stress of the first day of school, even in this COVID-19 era. Be well. Be safe. Be happy.


Tell me what you think. In the comments below leave your thoughts, share your experiences, offer other tips that have helped you. Or, just offer a word of encouragement for all the teachers and students heading back to school in the next few days! Click on “Leave a reply,” enter your name and email (don’t worry, I’m not going to spam you or sell your email address), and then write away.

And, as always, if you’ve found this post helpful, please be sure to like and share!!

Have a great year, everyone!

Much love!
jason walker's signature

Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 8: Making Amends and Knowing When It’s Time to Stop Apologizing

In traditional 12 Step recovery programs, two of the steps are dedicated to righting the wrongs that have been done–or at least acknowledging them, apologizing for them, and, if possible, making some sort of reparation (not necessarily monetarily) for them.

Step Eight: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Step Nine: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

-12 Steps of AA

I don’t know a lot about the 12 Steps, but in my mind, these two would be near the top in importance (you can correct me if I’m wrong and you’re familiar with the program).

This last week, since my complete failure at returning to the classroom in a new district, I have been on something of an apology tour. I apologized first to my family, then the principal who offered me the job, then to a new colleague who’d been helping me, then to friends who’d vouched for me as references, then to some generous friends who’d offered direct support and encouragement, and finally, to all of you. I truly felt it was necessary to make all of these apologies.

What’s the difference between apologizing and making amends, and why is making amends so important?

Although I’ve sort of equated making amends with apologizing, truly making amends is far more than offering an apology. Just look at the word a-MENDS…you can see the difference in the very word itself. When we make amends, we MEND something that has been torn or broken–we fix it–or, we at least try to fix it. An apology, however sincere, can’t really mend something that is broken. It offers, at best, a temporary reprieve from the hurt that has been caused.

According to SoberNation.com:

Making amends is an integral part of personal growth and healing. It is so imperative to make amends with those people whom you have wronged that it is outlined, clearly, in Alcoholics Anonymous. Steps eight and nine of the Twelve Steps specifically call for amends.

The Difference Between Making Amends and Making Apologies

I won’t go into the different types of amends here, although I do suggest reading the article quoted and linked above, which explains them in detail. I’m writing about them now because it’s time for me to start making them to the people I’ve hurt.

It’s important to know when to STOP apologizing.

I am deeply sorry for any pain my actions have caused. But, it’s not enough to be sorry anymore. Now, I need to fix it. I need to make amends.

There are a few people I need to make direct amends to, and I am in the process of doing that. But, there are many more people for whom making amends will mean getting well, getting healthy, and moving on. For those people, seeing me stand on my own without their constant support will be the only real amends.

I suspect that for all of us who suffer from anxiety/panic disorder and/or depression and OCD, there are many people to whom we owe amends. I encourage you to sit down and think about those people. Stop apologizing and start making amends.


I hope these posts are helpful to you, whomever you may be. If you’re struggling with anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, there is hope to be found. You can call the Panic Disorder Information Hotline at 800-64-PANIC (72642). (The page links to more information about anxiety and panic disorders.)

As always, if you or someone you know is suffering from any sort of mental illness or disorder, please reach out for help because there is help to be found!

Please share this post! Even if you don’t suffer, or don’t think you know anyone who does, you might just reach someone you didn’t even know and offer them HOPE! Thank you!!


Previous Posts in this Series:

Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 1
Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 2
Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 3
Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 4
Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 5
Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 6
Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 7

Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 7: Sometimes We Fail

Sometimes, we fail.

When I started this series over a year ago, I made a commitment to total transparency. Share everything (that is appropriate to share), hide nothing. Because only when we are totally honest with ourselves, with the people who love and care for us, and with the people who are helping us, can we totally heal. This post honors that commitment.

It’s been a long, difficult four days.

As most of you who regularly read this blog or follow me on social media know, I was to have started new hire orientation at a new school district on Monday. I was excited. It was going to be a huge step forward for me both financially and professionally. You’ve probably notice by now that I’m writing in the past tense…

I thought I was ready. I thought I could power through my anxiety and make it work. I was wrong.

By Sunday night, I was a complete nervous wreck. I didn’t sleep at all that night. I tossed and turned, and was up and down all night long. I finally drifted off into a fitful sleep around 4 a.m. My alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. I got up and got myself ready. By the time I needed to leave, I was in a full-blown panic attack, and I couldn’t get it to stop. But, I got in the car and headed out anyway–thinking, hoping, praying that I would settle down and be able to do it. I couldn’t.

I won’t belabor this story. The long and short of it is that I walked away from what likely would’ve been the best job I’ve ever had–certainly the best teaching job I’ve ever had. My anxiety. My panic. It won this time. So, this week, I found myself back at square one.

What does this mean for me? Where do I go from here?

The short answer is, I’m not sure.

The school district has the option and the right to place a sanction on my teaching certificate, and it could be suspended for a year. My hope is that with a note from my doctor and counselor, they will elect not to sanction me. But, if they do, then I will understand and accept that decision.

I don’t know what the future holds for me with regards to teaching. For now, I have to focus on the present. I have to focus on getting better. I have to focus on healing.

I’m still going to start work on my PhD in a few weeks. And, I’ll have to find a job working from home for the time being. I do have some longer term plans which I will share with you later. But, for now, what matters is the present moment and getting better.

I know some of you will be disappointed. Some of you may even be angry or feel betrayed in some way. Believe me, I understand that, too. I’m alternating back and forth between considering myself a total failure who shouldn’t be trusted and considering myself smart for recognizing a potential disaster (entering a classroom in a state of panic is not good) and doing what I could to avert that disaster, even if it meant damaging my immediate situation.

I only ask one thing of you: don’t give up on me. I’m in the fight of my life and I need people around me who love me, care for me, and support me, even if they don’t understand me. I’m human. I’m flawed. Sometimes, despite my best intentions, I fail.

Sometimes we all do.

More later.


I hope these posts are helpful to you, whomever you may be. If you’re struggling with anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, there is hope to be found. You can call the Panic Disorder Information Hotline at 800-64-PANIC (72642). (The page links to more information about anxiety and panic disorders.)

As always, if you or someone you know is suffering from any sort of mental illness or disorder, please reach out for help because there is help to be found!

Please share this post! Even if you don’t suffer, or don’t think you know anyone who does, you might just reach someone you didn’t even know and offer them HOPE! Thank you!!


Previous Posts in this Series:

Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 1
Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 2
Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 3
Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 4
Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 5
Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 6

The Last Day: How My Students Taught Me the Most Important Lesson of the Year

Last days at any job are weird. You sit around all day asking yourself, “What should I be doing?” You could be a good employee and diligently perform the duties of your job up until the very last minute of your last shift, but who would you be kidding? You have no real investment in it, so why?

Last days for teachers are, usually, not so fraught with ambivalence and indecision. Most last days for teachers involve administering and grading final exams, or various other administrative tasks that must be handled prior to leaving. Even still, there is that one last-day wild card for school teachers–students.

My last day of school at my most recent district was set up to be fairly easy. The exams for that day were 4th period, my conference period, and 5th period, my seniors in Business English who’d taken their exams the week before. I had all of my exams graded, the grades posted and verified. All of my technology had been turned in; my 75-cent lunch room charge (I bought a Diet Coke on “credit” one day) had been paid; all of my personal belongings had been boxed up. All I had to do was wait for the bell to ring, turn in my keys, and I was done.

But, the wild card…

My kids and me! Well…the top of my bald head, mostly!!

My students knew I wasn’t coming back next year, but they’re high school students, so most of them wouldn’t have had me on their schedule again anyway. Unbeknownst to me, however, some of them were disappointed that I wouldn’t be a face they saw everyday as they walked the halls.

Several students stopped by throughout the day to say their good-byes. They’d already asked if they could connect with me on social media since I wouldn’t be their teacher anymore, and I’d told them yes, with the warning that they’d likely be rather un-enthralled by my posts. A few of them brought me gifts…mostly Nacho Cheese Doritos, Diet Cokes, and Snickers–they knew those were my favorites.

But, I was surprised at the reactions of a few students who, until that day, I’d not seen much from in the way of acknowledging some appreciation for my efforts during the year. One girl, with whom I’d actually had a few minor “run in’s” over tardies and other discipline issues, came to me with tears in her eyes.

“Thank you,” she said, her chin quivering slightly, “for putting up with me this year. I know I wasn’t always the easiest to deal with, but I really did love your class.”

A young man who was in my largest and rowdiest class said, “I never have liked English very much, but you made it fun.”

Still another said, “Mr. Walker, I’m going to miss you!” And wrapped her arms around my neck before I could reply.

A anonymous note I found tacked to the bulletin board behind my desk a few days before school was out this year.

Perhaps the most moving reaction of all came in the form of a Facebook message the morning after the last day of school. It was from a good student who always did well in my class, but one who didn’t usually say much, which is part of the reason I was so surprised to hear from him. His message read, in part:

I’m not sure if it is appropriate to message you. But I am going to anyways. I would like to thank you for being, to me, one of the greatest English teachers I have ever had. Your great amount of humor with the class was what us as students need to be comfortable…

…There may have been days where I just didn’t want to go to English class because I felt like I did not belong with the other academically smart students. But you helped me feel like I belonged and helped me realize that I’m just as smart as the other kids. It is hard for a teacher to connect with their students. But you made it seem so easy.

To say I was bowled over would be a historically big understatement. I had no idea, until the moment I read that, that he felt that way. But, I’m so grateful that something I did, or something I said (I have no idea what), made him feel like he belonged.

He did belong. He does belong. They all belong!

I’ve learned in my very short time as an educator that we don’t always get to know the impact we have on our students. Oh, to be sure, we see progress in whatever subject matter we teach, but it’s not often at all that we learn the bigger things; the more important things; the things that keep us coming back year after year despite the many reasons not to.

I suppose I’m counting myself as one of the lucky ones this year. My last day turned out to be the day I got to see at least a little peek into those important things. More importantly for me, however, it renewed my commitment to the belief that we are meant to educate the whole person, not just the reader, the writer, the mathematician, the scientist, etc. The responsibility we have as educators is enormous because, though we may not always know it, for many of our students, we hold their very BELONGING in our hands.

God help me to never, ever forget that!

Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant

Coach Ron McCown

Coach Ron McCown

He was one of the very first readers of this blog and became its most frequent commenter. I knew something was wrong when his comments stopped sometime before Christmas. Coach Ron McCown was a teacher. He was a mentor. He was an encourager. Most importantly, he was my friend. Coach passed peacefully from this life into the Church Triumphant this afternoon and is now worshipping Our Lord face to face.

My first encounter with Coach McCown was in 7th grade. He was one of the football coaches and I was a manager for the football team. On the field, he was boisterous and tough and sometimes pretty harsh. Off the field I don’t remember a moment when he wasn’t smiling and laughing. In high school I had Coach McCown for two classes, World Geography (World “Joggerfer” as he would say in his best East Texas accent) and then Psychology and Sociology. He was a great teacher! I still remember a lesson on the Phoenicians and their wooden boats sailing around the Mediterranean Sea — who remembers that 25 years later? Not many, but Coach had a way of teaching that made you listen and take notice and remember. Then in Psychology/Sociology my senior year, he had a friend of his come to class. The friend was a polygrapher — a guy who gives lie detector tests. Our whole class was absolutely enthralled and we all wanted to be guinea pigs that day. I don’t remember who he picked, but I do remember him joking with us that we were all teenagers and none of us could pass! That’s the kind of teacher he was and that’s why I’ll not soon forget those lessons.

Some years after graduating, our paths crossed again when he was asked to emcee the Miss Van Zandt County pageant and I was running sound. Just as I remembered from school, Coach McCown was light-hearted, funny and supportive of everyone in the pageant. On the second night of competition there was a snag in the schedule. The person set to be the “entertainment” while the girls were changing clothes between portions of the competition was not able to perform. I happened to have an accompaniment tape of “The Midnight Cry” in my truck. I went outside and got it and sang that song. From the coach’s reaction, you would’ve thought Pavarotti had just sung (it was far from it, I assure you). But, he gushed and gushed. At the end of the night he pulled me up on stage to sing it again. He never forgot about that and in the last few years he asked me over and over again to come sing it at his church. Because of my anxiety I was never able to do it. I regret that.

Most recently, Coach McCown has been an encourager par excellence! As I said at the beginning of this post, he was one of the very first readers here. From the onset, Coach read my work and pushed me not only to fight through this latest bout with anxiety and depression, but to continue writing. He offered wise counsel, sound advice and consistent inspiration. He never stopped teaching even all these years later. In one of his comments, after I’d taken some of his advice and learned a lesson, he referred to me (to all of his “students”) as his raison d’être, his “reason for existing.” He was just that kind of man. He had the heart and soul of a teacher and friend. We, his students, are the better for it.

I have lost friends before, but this loss is especially tough. I guess I didn’t realize how much I looked forward to and relied on his words until now. We don’t get many opportunities in life to experience real wisdom. Coach McCown gave those of us who were lucky enough to learn from him that chance. Oh, how I could have used some of that wisdom and encouragement these last few days. It was and will continue to be truly missed. His last comment on one of my posts exactly one month ago today read, “O my! How positively entertaining and informative. Well done, Jason.”

Coach, I know that you have heard those very words tonight, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” Rest in peace, my friend!

…This one’s for you…